During our teenage years we undergo a stunning transformation. Starting out as helpless children, our bodies rapidly change size and shape, while surging hormones agitate our emotions. Meanwhile, our brain gains its adult capacity to understand abstract concepts. Our exploding cognitive power enables us to rapidly absorb information, forming ideas that feel intense and important. As we struggle to shape our own identity, we desperately try to do things that will help us like ourselves, and get others to accept us as well.
Crossroads of becoming
As we move from childhood to adulthood, we face constant tension and paradox. We want to be so cool, while we seethe with painful, confusing emotions. We believe we know so much, ignoring the possibility that others might know more. We are relentlessly driven towards sexuality, and yet we have so little understanding of where it is leading us.
Even as we desperately seek our independence, we rely on our family and other institutions for the basics of survival as well as the nurturing and guidance we need. We’re close to getting booted out of the nest, an intimidating and yet exciting prospect.
During these difficult times, we’re experimenting with our new feelings about each other. Our first romantic and sexual encounters explode into such emotional intensity, we barely feel we’re going to survive. What’s worse, boys and girls confuse each other with their different agendas. Boys have learned since birth to deny emotions, and are oriented to accomplishment. To them, sex becomes an activity at which they want to succeed. Girls grow up wide open to emotion, jumping into romance with full conviction. This mismatch between genders injects yet another element of chaos into the teen experience, and makes learning about romance and sex dangerous and confusing.
With so much going on, teenagers search for outlets. From immersion in sports, to video games, books, relationships, to shutting down in depression or turning to drugs and alcohol, teenagers struggle to keep their heads above water.
To find their individuality, they explore, experiment and take risks. Rejecting their childhood they become curious to discover which rules they ought to break, and are often drawn to try exactly those things they have been told to avoid. Sex and drugs have the allure of the forbidden, giving teens a perfect opportunity to rebel against authority, and learn their own lessons. Their peers expect them to prove their independent identity and they pressure each other and themselves to perform dangerous, forbidden self-defining acts.
They desperately need to understand the rule book of life, but in their quest for independence they reject the advice of those who have been through it already. Because their agenda is to find themselves, they turn away from the parents who remind them they are still children. Their apparent lack of interest in parental guidance makes them look like they’re slipping away.
What can parents do
As parents, we know so much more about the world, and yet our teenagers are exploding with the desire to learn it for themselves. We want to reach out to our kids but often feel like our input falls on deaf ears. Not that long ago, they relied on us for everything, and we had to guide them every step of the way. As they grow older, we know they’re not fully formed adults, and we know we’re responsible for them, so we continue to think in the old ways, telling them what to do, and expecting them to do it. But that strategy doesn’t work anymore. Teenagers are looking to the future, knowing that before long, they are going to need to think for themselves, and whether we like it or not, they want to get started. They begin to create distance from our opinions and advice, and are wary of us claiming to know more about life than they do.
We can’t stop trying to guide our kids, but as they get into their teen years, we need to rethink our approach to communicating with them. If we regularly remind them we still think they are children, we’ll deepen the gulf that divides us. Instead we need to gradually adjust our thinking to become more in tune with their maturing frame of reference. Choosing our battles, we need to let go when appropriate and let them make decisions, even if we think we know better.
As parents, the shortest route to a decision is “because I said so.” While this may end the conversation, it pushes the child away rather than drawing him closer. Our “I told you so” feeds his complaint that we’re uncaring and controlling.
As our teen learns the skills of abstract thinking, she wants reasons, and she wants to debate those reasons. We can take advantage of her desire to think things through, and instead of turning requests into arguments, we can turn them into teaching moments. While this may be an exhausting process for busy parents, by taking the time to carefully and completely listen to the teen’s request, we are building bridges that fulfill our desire for connection with our child, and provide a healthy environment in which to make decisions.
To get started on this process, we have to learn the art of listening patiently. Even when we think we already know where our teen’s request or statement is going, we need to stay silent and listen carefully. Simply by obeying the rule that each person is going to listen to the other without interruption, we can dramatically increase the quality of communication and reduce the number of arguments.
Having clearly listened to the teen’s issue, we need to slow down. Rather than impulsively reading from the script of our fears and rules, and making snap decisions and barking out orders, we can take the time to carefully consider and then clearly spell out our concerns. Because they want to become adults, they will appreciate our disclosing our fears about the possible drawbacks we imagine from their proposed activity. Such intimate explanations are very different than demands and orders, and draw two people closer together rather than pushing them apart. By calmly and patiently putting our concerns into words, we can shine the light of reason on our decision making process.
Carefully spelling out our concerns may not come naturally. For one thing, for many years, we’ve become accustomed to speaking to this same young person as if he were a child, and it’s difficult to find a new style of communicating. For another thing, many of us, even in intimate adult relationships, expect the other person to know what’s going on inside our own mind, and we typically feel agitated and disappointed when they don’t. This belief in the mind-reading power of others, especially those closest to us, is unrealistic and creates tension and misunderstanding. Instead of agitating ourselves with the belief that the teen should already know what we’re thinking, we can reduce the heat of the discussion by calmly and patiently explaining what’s on our mind.
Taking the time to think through and state our concerns, we can review this particular request in this particular situation, and gain insights into our teen’s life. And by clearly stating our concerns, we teach the child the art of sorting out the vast tumble of thoughts that accompany every desire. This art of give and take pulls the parent and teen together as a problem solving team, resolving conflicts with less arguing and acting out.
Negotiating may be a new skill for most of us, and just as with any new skill, it takes time and patience, and may not seem to succeed at first. But when the initial surprise and awkwardness has worn off and it becomes built into the routine of the family, this method of addressing requests will provide a strong foundation for family harmony. And learning this method presents an opportunity for building a life skill that will continue to give benefits to everyone involved, long after our teen has grown up.
By listening to them, and respecting the framework from which they approach life, we help them realize we’re with them, and not just trying to force our will on them. If we can swallow our parental pride, and accept them as budding adults, they’ll open up enough to accept some of our insights. Most of us have powerful memories of times in our teen lives when adults spoke to us compassionately and helped us through a crisis. As adults, we can look for opportunities to pass that helping hand along to our own teens.
Parents have feelings, too
While they pull away from us, we may consciously or unconsciously be pulling away from them. Many parents feel intimidated by the turmoil of the teenage years. The raw energy, the risk taking, the sexuality, the disorganized thinking, the powerful need to please peers, the self righteousness make our children seem so inaccessible and even dangerous.
We parents must now negotiate our own feelings about sexuality while our teenagers assume their sexual roles. When girls enter puberty, their father now must deal with his own complex feelings, pulling away, becoming awkward, or overcompensating by expressing inappropriate anger and control. Boys change from vulnerable children to rovers and hunters, out of the house, looking for action. Mom and dad have different reactions to their son’s behavior. As each parent responds in their own way to their child’s development, they may pull in different directions, creating strains and readjustments in their relationship.
Forgiving ourselves for our own teenage traumas
The pressure of raising a teen provides an ideal opportunity for us to learn about ourselves, and find out what makes us feel and behave in the way we do.
We were all teenagers once, so we ought to understand what it’s like, but we have mixed feelings about that period in our lives. While we may have some fond memories, most of us have eagerly forgotten the disruptive and disturbing changes in our body, our social clumsiness and our bad choices. Even though we try to shut out regret, humiliation and other emotions from our teenage years, these feelings can flood into awareness when we try to deal with our own kids.
The best way to help our kids is to increase our wisdom about our own lives. We need to grieve the poor choices, the social humiliation, and other painful residues of our teenage years. Instead of guilt and self-hatred we need to forgive ourselves. By coming to peace with our own past, we’re much better prepared to compassionately and wisely support our kids.
Making home a safe haven
Typically family members focus so much energy on roles outside the house, we have little left to build a nurturing family unit. How do we create a sense of support and safety at home? While it seems like an uphill battle, we could improve the entire family’s sense of connection by planning family dates, such as scheduling meals together, religious celebrations and worship and trips to visit our extended family. We could work together on crafts, sports or volunteer for community service. And above all, we need to listen non-judgmentally to our teens, so they feel safe, visible and accepted. Such conscious effort to create a supportive environment helps the teenager stay integrated into the family. In the short term, the pay off is more harmony. And planting these seeds of mutual support and trust now will provide the fruit of affectionate family memories for the rest of our lives.
Grandparents provide a family resource for kids of all ages. Kids who have the opportunity often find grandparents to be a balancing presence in their lives. Grandparents are old enough to have softened their memories of being teenagers. With their more objective, kind attitudes about sexuality and the turmoil of puberty, they bring a companionship and gentleness that provides an anchor in the teenager’s turbulent world.
The energy that makes teens feel like they are bursting at the seams is the energy that is driving them out of childhood into adulthood. By nurturing and shepherding them through this difficult transition, we can help teens channel that energy into becoming effective, vibrant, committed adults.
Whatever resources we have available, the key is to do our best to offer support and safety as our teens get through this difficult time. Getting through this period with wisdom may take more skill than we ever imagined we would need. But when we feel the pressure and pain, we need to remember our effort makes a difference in their lives.
While they are growing, we find ourselves struggling to keep up. In their overcritical state of mind, any flaws in our character become as glaringly obvious to them as a pimple on our nose. While we can’t be perfect, one of the best ways we can help teenagers is to learn about ourselves. By learning about our hopes and fears, by improving our patience and communication skills, and by improving the harmony and generosity of our relationships, we provide them with better guidance and emotional safety.
See also: Blended families, Divorce, Parenting Difficult (ADD) Children, Young adult
Get out of my life but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall? A parent’s guide to the new teenager by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw
The Adolescent Self, strategies for the self-management, self-soothing, and self-esteem in adolescents by David B. Wexler
Yes, your teen is crazy! Loving your kids without losing your mind by Michael J. Bradley
Raising an emotionally intelligent child by John Gottman